Virginia law stops early release of prisoners, angering families

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Christopher Ford was a baby when his father was sentenced to 28 years in prison for participating in a hit-and-run murder that led to the murder of two people at a car dealership.

After serving 25 years, prison officials told Robert Glenn Ford he would be released in July under a 2020 Virginia law that allowed inmates to take more time off their sentences for good behavior, his son said.

But just before he expected to go home, Virginia lawmakers approved a budget amendment from Republican administration Glenn Youngkin that would bar Ford and thousands of other inmates with violent crimes from receiving the extended demerit points earned, meaning they should have more time. sit out.

“Using this backdoor method, days before they were supposed to leave, was hugely wrong for me,” Christopher Ford said in an interview.

As lawmakers discussed the amendment, they discussed the approximately 560 inmates who, like Robert Ford, would be released in the program’s first 60 days. But the impact is much greater. A spokesman for the Department of Corrections confirmed that about 8,000 inmates are now ineligible for the extended credits.

Relatives and other advocates of the affected inmates said the turnaround has brutally disrupted reunion and homecoming plans, devastating families and the inmates themselves.

Republicans, who were joined by a pair of Senate Democrats in the amendment’s approval, argued that offenders convicted of violent crimes should not be given a chance to shorten their time behind bars.

The law, passed in 2020 when Democrats took full control of the state government, created a tiered system that allowed inmates with good behavior and participation in rehabilitation programs to earn extended credits up to 15 days a month to serve their sentences for nonviolent violations. Before the law was passed, inmates could earn up to 4.5 days per month. Very few inmates are eligible for parole in Virginia.

The 2020 law had a delayed effective date of July 1, 2022, so prison officials would have time to calculate new release dates. And the change in credits was applied retroactively, meaning the Department of Corrections was preparing for a first wave of releases when it went into effect.

Under the 2020 law, violent crimes were not eligible for the extended credit. But if inmates had a combined sentence with both a violent conviction and a lesser sentence, they could potentially save some time on the sentence they received for the nonviolent crime.

Multiple attempts to repeal the law failed, but Youngkin’s last-minute budget change was approved by the General Assembly on June 17. He signed the budget law days later.

During a debate in the state Senate on the amendment, Republicans suggested the law went further than originally intended by allowing inmates with violent convictions to reduce any portion of their sentences, even for the individual, lower convictions.

“Because of the way this is drafted, this is a loophole that we need to close,” Republican Senator Mark Obenshain said. He read from a list of the most serious crimes committed by the inmates of the first series of early releases, and urged some of those to offend again.

“We’re going to hear about it if any of these 41 rapists commit another rape,” he said.

Democratic Senator Joe Morrissey said everyone knew how the changes would work once the law was passed and accused Republicans of playing with the issue politically.

“I know what’s going to happen in November and October, when the Democrats let all these people out of jail. It’s a great sound bite and a great commercial, but that’s not what we do,” he said.

Youngkin also characterized the amendment as an easy fix when a group of women with affected relatives confronted him last week at a campaign-style event in Woodbridge, where he touted the recently signed budget. His aides dragged him away after the women started yelling questions.

“They dangled this heap in their faces and snatched it from under their feet 10 days before they were to be released. That’s ridiculous,” said Chari Baker, whose husband was one of those affected.

Baker, who said she leads a prison reform advocacy group, said the change rocked plans ranging from weddings to employment. In one case, a near-death father hoped to see his son before he died, she said.

Christopher Ford said his father, now 62, became a Jehovah’s Witness in 2006 and volunteers to serve as a group leader in religious studies in prison. He also took agricultural courses and had a job in the prison kitchen for many years.

“I understand the fears some people have (about releasing him from prison), but there are people who have changed over time. My father is not the same person he was in 1997 when he committed these crimes,” he said.

Christopher Ford said that because his father’s release has been delayed until February, his family has postponed homecoming celebrations, such as a planned camping trip and a trip to a New York Giants game.

Paulettra James will wait even longer. She expected her husband’s release date to be pushed back by up to 10 years, thanks to the extended credits. Jerry James is serving a 38-year sentence for a series of bank robberies and has worked hard to get his life back on track, his wife said.

“It was beyond devastating to get this news. It was heartbreaking,” she said.

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